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Betty Friedan Emerges From 'The Fountain of Age'

March 03, 1986|URSULA VILS | Times Staff Writer

In 1963, publication of Betty Friedan's book "The Feminine Mystique" launched what was to become an international revolution, the women's liberation movement.

Now Friedan has spent the first half of the '80s researching another mystique: age, which she says is "as pernicious as the feminine mystique."

Friedan, in Los Angeles since January as a visiting scholar at USC's Andrus Gerontology Center, admits she came to the topic of aging with some reluctance.

Initial Turn-Off

She sat in a spacious apartment in a complex on the beach at Santa Monica, fresh from a pool swim on a chilly day in which no Southern California native would dip a toe ("It was heated," she said), heated or not. She spoke candidly, especially about her initial turn-off on the subject of aging.

"I've been looking into aging off and on for the past five or six years," she said. "I want to break through the age mystique in this country. . . .

"Age has been looked on only as a decline from youth--and male youth at best. Aside from its connotation of death--and denial--the reality of age was never looked at.

"I am fascinated with the changes the women's movement has made regarding aging. There is really a massive change for women. Menopause is no longer the end of life. Women continue to experience growth as they age--but men are dying.

"I am interested in these mysterious questions. How could a change in the role of women make a change in aging?"

It was while on a fellowship at Harvard University, Friedan said, that she "became aware of the profundity of age." She decided to write a book on the subject, "The Fountain of Age," but found herself returning to the matter of women and realized she needed to write a follow-up to "The Feminine Mystique." The result was "The Second Stage," a call for eliminating sexist polarization--male only, female only--and inclusion of men in the liberation movement also.

Having dealt with the second stage of the women's movement, Friedan said, she could move on to the project on aging: "There was no way I could write this book ("The Fountain of Age") unless I could see it as me."

Two birthdays--her 60th five years ago and her 65th last month--illustrate Friedan's changed view of her world.

"My friends gave me a surprise party on my 60th birthday and I could have kicked them all," she said. "I had my 60th birthday and I was not happy about that.

'It Was Magic'

"But my birthday party this year--it was magic, the best week of my life. My friends came from far and near. One came from Rome. There were people there that I fought battles with in the women's movement, including many marvelous men. My children were there, even Daniel, who I thought would be on a scientific mission.

"They even composed a musical comedy about my life, a celebration of life that transcended age. There were a lot of friends, more than 200, and the party was at the new 'in' disco in New York, the Palladium, and later we all went downstairs and danced."

Perhaps Friedan's youthful outlook is illustrated by the fact that she has done that which is often supremely difficult for a New Yorker: She has learned to live in Los Angeles--and like it.

"I was asked to be a visiting scholar at the Andrus Center at USC and I happily accepted," she said. "I decided it was a good way to clear the decks and finish the first draft of my book.

"The drawback, I thought, was living in Los Angeles. I love it. I love where I'm living. I have met some very stimulating people. I have a lot of worlds I live in--movie people, those from Andrus and USC, where there is also the SWIM program (Study of Women and Men in Society), the subject of anti-feminism and anti-Semitism. I have writer friends here.

"I love on Sunday to walk to Venice and have breakfast at Figtree's cafe. . . .

"I'm getting by without wheels. I drive, but I can't drive out here and think at the same time. The first day I was here I used cabs but that would have broken the bank. With a combination of rides (from others, mostly USC people) and cabs I can make it."

A Mix of Furniture

She has furnished her temporary home warmly with a mix of rented and purchased furniture. She looked particularly at home in a Pier 1 rattan queen's chair. She proudly showed a color photo of her family, sons Daniel and Jonathan and "my daughter-the-doctor," Emily; Emily's husband and Jonathan's wife and "my grandbaby," Rafael, 4.

Friedan has lectured at some of the nation's most prestigious institutions, including Harvard, Yale and Columbia universities and her own alma mater, Smith College.

At USC she participates in colloquia, lectures, symposia and seminars on aging, in addition to continuing work on "The Fountain of Age." Despite her steadfast concern for women, the subject of aging concerns her on a humanistic, non-sexual basis.

"I am as interested in the aging process for men as I am for women," she said.

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